Scenes from the Life of the Buddha, ink and colours on silk

From Cave 17, Mogao, near Dunhuang, Gansu province, China
Tang dynasty, 8th-early 9th century AD

Story telling set in a landscape

This painting was part of a series representing the life of the historical Buddha. Born as a prince named Siddhartha Gautama in the kingdom of the Shakyas in northern India, the historical Buddha is also known by his title, Shakyamuni, Sanskrit for 'sage of the Shakyas'. Viewed from top to bottom, the painting enabled the believer to contemplate the events that led to his Enlightenment. The three main scenes are presented in a mountain setting, a rare example of early Chinese landscape painting. The cartouches further partition the scenes. These often contain inscriptions, but here are left blank. Perhaps it was assumed that the viewer would easily recognise the well-known stories.

The top scene shows the future Buddha on the right, bidding farewell to his horse and groom. The horse kneels to show his respect, a motif known from third-century Gandharan reliefs. A cliff on the left is contrasted with the water and the distant mountains on the right. The second scene shows the cutting of Shakyamuni's long hair, here worn in an unusual fashion resembling Central Asian headdresses. In the bottom scene Shakyamuni is shown meditating and fasting. The 'Life of Austerities' did not lead to Enlightenment and later he rejected it in favour of the 'Middle Way'. The bird's nest built on his head indicates that during his meditation, Shakyamuni remained motionless for a long time.

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More information


R. Whitfield, Art of Central Asia: The Ste-2, vol. 1 (Tokyo, Kodansha International Ltd., 1982-85)

R. Whitfield and A. Farrer, Caves of the thousand Buddhas: (London, The British Museum Press, 1990)


Height: 58.500 cm
Width: 18.500 cm

Museum number

Asia OA 1919,1-1,0.97


Gift of Sir Marc Aurel Stein


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